When I was a little girl, I would spend several hours writing stories and creating characters inspired by the books I read.
As I grew older, my mind often swirled with confusion whenever an adult asked me what I wanted to be when I became a grown-up. One day, I made a firm decision about my career of choice and I told a family member that I wanted to be a writer. Without hesitation or even a blink of an eye, their response was: “Black people don’t write for a living.”
Looking back, I like to believe that this family member meant well. This was the mid 1980s and the lack of Black British writers made my dream seem impossible. Plus, having to navigate a Britain that was less than welcoming to West Indian immigrants more-than-likely had taken its toll and convinced this person it was safer to keep things small.
Fast forward to secondary school. I told my teacher that I wanted to work for Vogue for my two weeks’ work placement. Maybe it was because my school was based in east London or that my teacher had little to no idea of how to get her student to work for such a prestigious magazine, but my ‘experience’ took place at the travel agency, Thomas Cook instead.
Hardly Chanel and champagne, dahling.
Unbeknownst to me, both experiences were rude awakenings of how society would continuously attempt to ‘keep me in my place’. My race and class would determine my success, not my ambitions; (and according to others) this didn’t include the worlds of writing and Vogue. On top of this, I should also not complain and be thankful; after all life is unfair.
It wasn’t until my thirties that I felt comfortable to push back. That I too deserved to walk the pathways that lead to better opportunities. This lesson has not come easily. The little girl within me still hears the voices of the misguided adults who thought it was better to keep my world limited than to empower me to make my own choices. Additionally, I’m not blind to the fact that these ill-advised voices were all female. I do wonder how much of society’s constant noise telling females they should be more willing to take orders than to give them had influenced their thinking and poisoned their beliefs?
Although I have always spoken my mind, I’m fully aware that the battle to have my voice heard is constant. So much so, that one could easily be persuaded to remain silent; it’s far easier and don’t we all want to live a peaceful life?
Yet, silence comes at a cost. After years of working in corporate Britain (both private and public sectors), I have spent far too long dodging colleagues’ micro-aggressions with a smile, mindful to not be seen as the ‘angry Black woman.’ I have stayed in roles far longer than organisations deserved when I was overlooked for promotions. I naively thought my hard-work and dedication would be rewarded, when the colour of my skin outshone anything that I could bring to the board table. The shattered dreams of previous generations still ring in my ears each time I apply for a new job, and although I’ll try my hardest to think otherwise, I cannot help but question whether my skin colour is far too political a consideration for a majority-White firm.
So, when conversations about race, inequality and representation began to rear their heads (again) earlier this year, it would have been easier for me to keep my head down and carry on. I mean, protesting in the midst of a global pandemic is hardly smart. Except, matters of the heart outplayed medical logic.
Standing amongst thousands of people, the majority of whom looked like me, shouting for justice for George Floyd and every other person who has lost their life to police brutality was uplifting. Someone asked me if I felt empowered and my honest answer was “partly”. This wasn’t the first time I had attended a protest, and I doubt it’ll be my last, but I could not help but wonder, what did all of this mean?
The opportunity to answer my own question came days later at work. The eruption of the younger generations’ demands for a better world ripped through every floor of the building I work in and demolished any room for excuses. During team meetings I spoke about the generational burdens carried by present and future people of colour whose families have been forced to jump through endless hoops and rewarded with crumbs from the social-mobility cake.
I still remember my voice quivering. The concerns of whether I had said too much or made other people uncomfortable paled in comparison to wanting to speak my truth. No, I had to speak my truth. The tentative advocator within me, that sometimes growls softly wanted to roar at the ongoing (and still unchanged) inequalities taking place. This is the reason I started to blog.
I now fully accept that it is too dangerous and damaging to stay quiet. Black people do so in fear of offending others or being seen as ‘combative’, but it is our own ambitions, life, happiness and mental health that suffer. To swallow discrimination and act as if it doesn’t tear at every inch of your soul is like drinking poison and not expecting your body to react to the consequences.
For too long Black people have applauded their strength to silently manoeuvre between society’s comfortability of who we should be, whilst fighting for a freedom to be whoever we want to be. Just like everyone else. This summer taught us that ‘enough is enough’. As ‘Black Lives Matter’ became a slogan freely spoken by every aspect of society including government ministers, the question of how much this rings true has yet to be honestly answered.
Yes, British society is having more open conversations, but as previous discussions have proven, we need more than talk. I believe this is understood, although how long Britain continues to dodge taking tangible steps to create more equality for all is anyone’s guess.
In the interim, we can all play a part to use our voices to uplift others. For minority communities, telling our stories of what it is honestly like to live in a White-majority country is helping to shift people’s awareness. For White people, having empathy with these communities can help to build bridges and force those in authority to make decisions, and not to dither as their predecessors have done. We can all play a part to move society in the right direction. This includes speaking up and calling out social injustices when we see them. Granted, some will be quicker and louder to respond, but if we all speak up then we can start to meet the expectations that living in the 21stcentury ought to bring.
So, here’s to a brighter 2021. May we all get a hella lot louder!